Beyond confidence workshops: Closing the agency leadership gender gap

The recent data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows there is plenty of work to be done to close the leadership gender gap. Here, leadership expert Michelle Redfern looks at strategies that should be implemented to do just that for Australian agencies.

Considering recent data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and insights from industry analyses, it’s clear that closing the leadership gender gap in Australian agencies requires a shift in focus – from mere confidence building to building business acumen among women leaders.

Understanding the status quo

Recent data shows a persistent disparity in pay within Australian agencies. The median pay gap for base salaries between men and women is 14.5%, widening to 19% when bonuses and other perks are considered. This substantial gap underscores the systemic challenges women face in achieving parity in the workplace. Yet, when it comes to advancing more women into leadership positions and closing the yawning gender pay gap, women are often still given the career advice to ‘just be more confident’.

Challenging the confidence narrative

In my book, “The Leadership Compass,” I argue that focusing solely on building women’s confidence overlooks systemic structural issues. Imposter syndrome (feeling like a fraud even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary), disproportionately cited as a critical barrier for women, is a symptom of these deeper systemic flaws. The ambition penalty (where women are often punished for displaying traits celebrated in men, such as assertiveness and ambition) is another double standard that can stifle women’s career advancement and leadership development.

How about we shift the focus to competence?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s insights highlight the misidentification of confidence as competence. His TED Talk, book and various articles rightly critique the overvaluation of the charismatic, confident buffoon, which often leads to the promotion of less capable leaders. Hiring the confident, charismatic person is more likely to result in a man getting the job than a woman.

Since nearly 60% of senior leadership skills are related to business, strategic and financial acumen competencies, what I call BQ, it is time to shift from subjective confidence to objective competence-based talent decisions.

Advancing more women into leadership roles means that decision-makers must begin to emphasise and cultivate core BQ competencies. BQ in leadership, the leader gets results, and it rests on the competencies associated with business, strategic, and financial acumen. It means knowing and being known for the skills related to leading for strategic and financial business outcomes and being ambitious and driven for the organisation’s success.

We should develop strategic BQ competence in women rather than continuing to measure the candidate’s confidence. After all, if you were heading into brain surgery, would you prefer competence or just confidence in your surgeon? I’ll have both thanks because confidence rests on a foundation of competence!

Leadership call to action

To move forward, the focus must be on developing a broader strategy that includes serious investment in developing women’s critical leadership competencies (hello, BQ!).

  1. Redefine Leadership Criteria: Shift the focus from superficial traits like confidence to deeper competencies in business, strategic and financial acumen.
  2. Train People Leaders: They must know about and how to interrupt gender bias and double standards that prevent women from advancing.
  3. Fix the System:  Address the structural biases that are baked into organisational policy, cultures and ways of working that women.

This shift will not only close the gender gap in leadership but also enhance organisational performance because there will be more wildly talented and effective women in leadership.


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